Is Obama Wise?

Illustration by Steve Burnett

Apologies for the extended absence. I’ve been on the road talking about “Wisdom” and it’s been gratifying to see such large and enthusiastic crowds. We had more than 200 people in Seattle, 150 at Powell’s Bookstore (yeah, Portland!), nearly 100 at Stanford, and 200 people attended a sold-out conversation I had with neuroscientist Andre Fenton at the Rubin Museum of Art on March 24. Thanks to everyone who came out. And for those interested, Rick Kleffel of NPR affiliate KUSP in California has posted a pod-cast of our lovely one-hour conversation about wisdom.

Now, on to Obama.

In his life of Pericles, Plutarch tells the amusing anecdote about how the great Greek leader was verbally assaulted in the marketplace one day by a relentless citizen-critic. Rather than having the man sent off, Pericles endured his insults for the remainder of the day, allowed the man to follow him home, and eventually arranged for one of his servants to accompany the heckler to his own residence after dark by torchlight.

That story of cordiality in the face of insult came to mind when I read an interesting piece in the Washington Post this morning, describing how Barack Obama reads ten letters from the public every day, and how he insists that the people who screen his mail include letters from critics and detractors in the mix. About half the letters, Obama is quoted as saying, “call me an idiot.”

Obama’s leadership style in general, and especially since passage of health care reform, has led me to ponder this question: Is Barack Obama wise? As it turns out, a number of news stories in the past week or so have repeatedly hinted at qualities that echo the eight “neural pillars of wisdom” described in my book Wisdom.

In his New York Times column after health care legislation passed, for example, David Brooks stressed the role that Obama’s “sheer resilience” played in keeping the legislation alive. As readers of Wisdom know, emotion regulation—the ability to stay even-keeled in the face of negative events or adversity—is a hallmark of emotional resilience, which in turn is crucial to decision-making. It is essential for keeping focused on long-term goals, is clearly related to patience, and just as clearly derives, at least in part, from cognitive strategies originating in the prefrontal cortex.

Psychological qualities long associated with wisdom (including resilience) emerge even more strongly in a fascinating story by Ceci Connolly in the Washington Post last week that gave a behind-the-scenes account of how the White House pulled off the health reform coup after it looked all but dead in January.

In the piece, Obama exemplifies several wisdom traits identified by psychologists like Paul Baltes, Vivian Clayton, and Monica Ardelt: dealing with uncertainty (especially after the Scott Brown election in Massachusetts); re-framing the problem in search of an alternative solution (a White House official lauded Obama for “changing the narrative”); humility in the form of patiently listening to critics (Obama convened the bi-partisan health care summit against the advice of staff); and emotion regulation (despite monolithic Republican opposition, Obama by all accounts remained cordial, if feisty, in his conversations with opponents).

And if wisdom, as Clayton suggested three decades ago, involves an ability to reconcile deep cognitive contradictions, consider this take on Obama from Connolly’s story: “In so many ways since taking office, he had seemed to be searching for the right balance between two versions of himself: Obama the idealistic community organizer, and Obama the pragmatic president who could abandon core principles in the drive to pass a bill.”

Pundits have taken to lampooning Obama’s “cool and deliberate” style of decision-making (see Dana Milbank in the Post). But you could argue that George W. Bush’s “Blink”-style, seat-of-the-pants gut decision-making strayed far from wisdom, not least because his cherry-picking approach to knowledge acquisition almost doomed him from the start to bad decisions.

No one, including Obama, is immune to bad decision-making, but his philosophy of information-gathering, including those ten letters he reads every day, suggests he’s open to contradiction, criticism, and the kind of knowledge that, while sometimes unflattering, may still be crucially informative. If good decisions require the humility (yes, humility) of relentless (even courageous) knowledge gathering, then Obama has proven—at least on the basis of recent events—to be wise.

Coming attraction: When I return to the subject of wisdom and leadership, I want to revisit Barbara Tuchman’s fantastic 1979 lecture, “An Inquiry into the Persistence of Unwisdom in Government.”

Other things I’m thinking/reading/maybe writing about: the absence of wisdom in the medical profession, as it pertains to the Henrietta Lacks story; a somewhat different take on rumination and depression from the recent New York Times Magazine story; and some thoughts on the “afterlife” of decisions after reading Sheena Iyengar “The Art of Choosing.”

I’m also pondering the cultural blindspot in which we tend to view men (Socrates, Confucius, the Buddha, etc.) as wise figures, but less commonly confer that same distinction on women. I have my thoughts about why that is, but would welcome suggestions from readers as well, and am soliciting nominations for a Top Ten (or maybe Fifteen) list of the wisest women of all time. Cheap Windows 7 Ultimate
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  1. Interesting points steve. It seems that a wise leader also needs to know when to ignore his critics, too, though (not the case here, just for the sake of argument). Balance, balance, balance.

    Sharon Stone once said “you can only f**k your way to the middle.” I wouldn’t put her on my top ten wisest women list, but I always thought the comment qualified as being a wise one. Go figure.

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  6. I feel like Oprah qualifies as one of the, and maybe the, wisest women in the United States. Have you seen her 10 webcasts with Eckhart Tolle, corresponding with the 10 chapters of his book, “The New Earth”?

  7. David Korman says:

    I am cautious about ascribing wisdom to President Obama; not because of any un-wise behaviors he has exhibited, but out of a fear that I might attribute my overwhelming agreement with his public acts as evidencing his wisdom.

    Certainly, some politicians have acted wisely at times, but consistent wisdom as a practice seems to be a guarantee of a short political career in a democracy. Neither public prophets nor sages are appreciated fully within their life spans.

    There is a significant problem in studying whether celebrities are wise. It is often difficult to determine which perceived ideas and behaviors are truly attributable to the public figure. Similarly, we often have inadequate information as to how they came to their judgments, and what actual factors were weighed.

    Further, the fact that a decision was “correct” does not mean that it was wise. “Even a blind squirrel will occasionally find a nut,” and the “right answer” might simply coincide with an answer incorrectly or inappropriately made (witness the ongoing debate about President Lincoln’s motivations).

    Whether a result is judged “good” or “bad” will change over time, as demonstrated in this often told “Asian Wisdom Tale:”

    A folktale, supposedly Chinese, tells of a farmer whose only plow horse ran away. People in the village commiserated with him, but he was an easygoing guy and would just shrug his shoulders in resignation and keep working.

    Then the horse returned from the hills, with several mustangs following. The farmer and his son roped them, and soon were training a small herd of fresh and energetic new work animals. The villagers clucked their tongues in envy.

    Not much time went by before one of the horses bucked, kicking the farmer’s son and badly breaking his leg. Again, this aroused the sympathy of the locals.

    While the son was healing, the emperor’s army came through the town, conscripting young men; all of whom died in battle. Since the son was not able-bodied, they passed him by. He was able to stay with his father and regain his health.
    (this version found at,-Bad-Luck—A-Folktale-For-Entrepreneurs&id=3924493)

    I think that the work of researchers like Monika Ardelt in using non-celebrity persons who have evidenced wisdom (at least as she defines it), is much more likely to throw light on this elusive subject than looking at the perceived behaviors of persons with “spin-doctors” on their staffs. If, wisdom is a process that requires the integration of several traits, and is not based solely on the ultimate decision of the subject, its study requires closer examination than can be done with persons in the public eye.

    Additionally, by looking at the wise behaviors of those “extraordinary everyday folk” (relatives and friends), who most directly influence our lives, Dr. Ardelt’s work better balances “HIStory” with “HERstory,” and teaches useful lessons for everyone.

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